The Art Biz ep. 96: Ensuring a Profitable Art Business

Are you seeking a profitable art business?

This is the Art BIZ Podcast on the blog at Art BIZ Success. I assume that, if you’re listening, you are interested in an art business, not just an art hobby.

There’s nothing at all wrong with art hobbies. I highly recommend them. But it’s a whole new ballgame when you turn your art into a business. When you begin asking for money in exchange for your talent.

I want to talk about being a profitable artist. What it takes to not just make and sell art, but to also make money. To ensure that you have a positive net income in your art business. Stick with me.

Diane Sanborn oil cod wax painting | on Art Biz Success
©Diane Di Bernadino Sanborn, Equal Partners. Oil and cold wax on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches.

I’ve talked with many artists who try to make a little money here and there, and then find they no longer enjoy making art after trying to sell it. The pressure to make money in a business is real.

Businesses, by definition, seek profit. Breaking even with the numbers can only work for so long. If you’re claiming deductions on a business here in the U.S., the IRS is going to come after you if you continue to operate at a loss. See the “hobby loss” rule for the details and talk with your accountant. Look for similar rules if you are outside our borders.

As I said, this episode of the podcast isn’t for hobbyists. It’s for you if you are ready to step up and be the boss of your art business. To be the CEO.

The CEO (Chief Executive Officer) is the person at the top of a company’s hierarchy. The buck ultimately stops with the CEO.

You must BE the CEO of your art business. Because, like it or not, that’s exactly what you are.

Let’s break down what that means.

Profitable Artists Are in Charge

Jan Alice Keeling watercolor painting | on Art Biz Success
©Jan Alice Keeling, Kelly in Pearls. Watercolor on paper, 12 x 9 inches.

If you want to control your art business, you must take charge of your destiny. No one cares about your success more than you do.

Nobody else is going to look after you or your business like you can. Nobody.

This means that you assume 100% responsibility for your actions, decisions, and results. No whining. No complaining. This is your business.

In my programs, I ask artists to sign a responsibility contract.

I want my students and clients to understand that, while I am responsible for giving them valuable information and strategies or running a profitable art business, they are responsible for doing the work.

I can’t control what they do outside of my watch or even under my watch, but I can remind them of the power they possess.

You Don’t Need to Do It Alone

CEOs don’t run companies all by themselves! They have COOs, CTOs, other managers, and a full staff of competent hires that often don’t get enough credit or share in the profits. But I’ll leave that to another podcast to tackle.

Unfortunately, when you are a 1-person business, you are not just the CEO. You also assume these other roles. But you are not alone.

As an Artist CEO, you seek input from a spouse, another artist, a friend with business savvy, or a coach. You find community—online or in person—with other like-minded artists with whom you can discuss challenges and strategies to overcome them. You know who to go to for support with specific situations, and who to avoid when negativism or criticism is possible.

In short, you ask for help. There are so many people out there ready to help you—even ready to help you sell your art.

Asking for help and advice is a sign of strength rather than weakness. You can make more informed decisions for your business by learning from others’ experiences, and that can help you become a profitable artist.

That brings me to my next point.

Delegate Your Weaknesses

CEOs do what they do best and delegate the rest. A CEO doesn’t have time to micromanage or, worse, do work that other people are better qualified to do.

Jen McCaw opal ring | on Art Biz Success
©Jen McCaw, Boulder opal and 22k gold shield ring. Boulder opal with great orange and red flash set in 22k gold, Argentium, and sterling silver, size 6.5.

As an Artist CEO, your #1 priority is your studio practice. Always! If you aren’t getting enough time in the studio, something on the business side needs to change. It must change. Because without the art you are not an artist. Without the art, there is no prospect of a profitable business.

As you go throughout your week, pay attention to tasks you’re currently doing that you could delegate. It doesn’t mean you’re going to hire someone right away. I just want you to be aware of how you’re spending your time. I think you’ll be surprised.

Now let’s talk about how you’re spending your money.

As a Profitable Artist, You Know Your Numbers

It is true that you have to spend money to make money, but do you know the actual numbers that it takes?

As an Artist CEO, you sure do. You know how to cost out a service or product, and you know what your profit margins are.

You take into account all of your expenses and overhead costs, including your materials, time, and what I call the PITA factor (pain-in-the-ass factor). You understand that your work must be priced for its market, but you are also aware that you must make a living.

A number of years ago, artist Liz Crain wrote a couple of blog posts that detail the considerations of showing her work in certain venues and which ended up, surprisingly, to be most profitable. One is for brick-and-mortar spaces and the other for online opportunities.

Clay fiber heart cakes artist Liz Crain | on Art Biz Success
©Liz Crain, 2 Heart Cakes. Clay and fiber, 2.75 x 4.25 x 4 inches each.

I think you’ll find these posts enlightening and be inspired by the deep dive she did to find her most profitable venues for sales.

Analyze Your P&L Statement

Look at your Profit & Loss (P&L) statement every month or so. This isn’t an easy task if you aren’t using bookkeeping software, so I hope you already have numbers plugged in to Quickbooks, Quicken, FreshBooks, or something similar. You really want to understand the numbers in front of you so you can adjust operations as necessary.

Mel Williamson oil painting of cowboy boots | on Art Biz Success
©Mel Williamson, Thriftstore Cowgirl. Oil on Yupo, 13 x 9.25 inches.

This statement, which outlines income and expenses, will show you what income stream is making you the most money, and will also show you where your expenses are the heaviest. If a product, service, venue, or sales outlet is losing money, do what you can to stop the bleeding immediately. Before it’s too late.

[ Hear more about income streams in Art Biz Podcast episode 18 with Helen Hiebert ]

Okay, so you have your P&L statement in front of you. Just do a once over. The numbers are tempting. You see a big number in one of the income areas and get excited. Oooo. That must be a good one!

Not. So. Fast.

Just because you’re making a lot of sales in one area, doesn’t mean it’s the most profitable income stream. You have to take into account the expenses: real and emotional.

Which income streams have higher expenses associated with them than others? For example, you gave a workshop. You made a good amount from registrations, but you also had to rent the space, take out ads, provide food and beverage, get extra insurance to cover that space, hire an extra hand, and spend way too much time and energy getting people to sign up.

Can you decrease expenses and become a more profitable artist with the next workshop? Maybe make it bigger or smaller?

Which are taking too much of your time or emotional energy? In other words, you really dislike doing them for the amount of time they take or the amount of income you see in return.

Annette Kaplan oil painting of onion | on Art Biz Success
©Annette Kaplan, Mr. Onion. Oil on canvas, 6 x 6 inches.

You can look at these numbers with all of your income streams: original works and reproductions that require framing and shipping, lower priced products like clothing and pillows that take attention away from selling higher-priced originals, a calendar, book, or note cards. Analyze them all.

Which are worth saving? Maybe they’re not your highest earners right now, but you can see a path for them rising to the top.

This brings me to my final point.

You Must Be Able to Adapt to a Changing Environment

If Covid taught us anything, it taught us that some artists were better prepared to adapt than others. They had an online shopping cart or an online classroom in place. They had invested in their online presence and weren’t afraid to adapt in-person events to the online world. (On a side note, I believe individual artists were far better prepared to pivot than galleries or museums. Kudos to you for that!)

The world is changing faster than ever before. To run a profitable art business, you want to stay on top of technology, trends, materials, and information.

It’s not helpful to wish things were different than they are or for the good old days when you didn’t have to use email or a social media account (remember those?). It’s not just not helpful. It’s destructive.

Jenny Hope Antes oil abstract painting | on Art Biz Success
©Jenny Hope Antes, Dreaming Again. Oil on paper, 14 x 11 inches.

As an Artist CEO, you keep an eye on trends. Here are three to be aware of.

  1. Where art is being exhibited, whether it’s at international art fairs, traditional galleries, outdoor festivals, or online.
  2. How art is being exhibited, because exhibition design evolves.
  3. How art is being promoted and sold. What’s the latest way to photograph your art, share on social media, and advertise? What kind of events and experiences are other artists and venues staging?

You might be intrigued by virtual reality tours of exhibition spaces and contemplate the possibilities. God forbid you should consider turning your art into NFTs. I’m not a fan, but we can’t ignore what’s happening around us. You might not dive into these waters quickly, but you know they’re available. You are aware. You’re in tune with your local community and with the greater art world.

You anticipate that the landscape will change because that’s how the world evolves. It is never satisfied with the status quo. But you don’t mind. You have staying power. You are becoming a profitable artist. You are prepared to adapt and even eager for new challenges.

And you know you don’t have to do it alone.

Related Episodes

Check out episode 97 where I talk with ceramist Patricia Griffin about how she sells her functional ceramics by opening up her shopping cart only at certain points during the year. It’s made her more money, created a heckuva lot of buzz, and been fun for her.

And episode 98 in which painter Jill Soukup discusses how her business has changed in the last 10 years and the steps she has taken to become more profitable.

Listen to the Podcast

This post was first published on August 15, 2012, and has been expanded with an added podcast episode. Original comments are intact.

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15 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 96: Ensuring a Profitable Art Business”

  1. What perfect timing for this post! Thank you, Alyson. I recently decided to do several things to push my business to the next level, at the expense of, of course studio time. I found myself working 14 hour days working on infrastructure; organization, advertising, updating my website etc., etc., etc.
    But these things aren’t just “done” – they are not static and to keep things moving forward, and have studio time, I needed help. And then I remembered something you had posted quite some time about about outsourcing.
    I questioned “can I afford an assistant?” “Will it be a good investment”? So I wrote down all of the things that needed to be done on a weekly/monthly basis that took me away from painting. The answer was crystal clear – I can’t afford NOT to have an assistant! The amount of time for those tasks is significant and delegating those tasks to someone else frees me up not just to paint, but to network and cultivate my collectors.
    So thank you, thank you for reminding me that at the end of the day – investing in yourself and really being the CEO of your own company is the best investment you will ever make for your career.

  2. You always give such useful advice! It has been a long hot summer in Philadelphia, I’ve learned that even if I pick excellent artwork, the gallery walls are not going to sell the works on their own.
    I’ve ventured out to new avenues including, magazine advertising, hosting charity events, connecting with home stagers, commercial and interior designers. My business is approaching our second anniversary. I want to make it over the 2 year hump!
    I think I’m doing just about everything you mentioned in your post. I would love to hear artist’s advice on where they find their clients. I’m finding that even if a person can afford an original work of art, they don’t value it like a spa visit, new furniture, or seasonal landscaping. How do I attract potential clients who value one of something; something that you know only one person on this earth created? FYI my gallery offers original works of art from $50 up to $4000ist.

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  4. Pam…Your gallery is on 3rd & Vine…Madame Rue is on 34th & Vine…I feel somehow you are close enough that maybe you should be selling some of her Love Potion Number 9…Ok enough about product…Every time I make a new artwork I order a new set of business cards from Vista print with the image…I hand them out daily, liberally…Joseph & I walk around alot & we tend to pat people’s dogs…So we chat alot…I make friends & hand them a card with the new image…Honestly I have never been able to make enough art to sell to the people that want it…My biggest problem is I am slow…The other thing I recently did was create a tiny mini catalogue using Snapfish, which offers a 2 inch by 3 inch tiny catalogue thing…I carry that in my fanny pack because it is tiny, & go through it with people after the business card handing out…I don’t give it to them though…But it is a great chatting tool…The combination of walking around alot & far & being chatty, combined with a nifty card & now the tiny catalogue is enough for me…I’ve been thinking of starting a corporation to get people to make my designs for me, just to keep up with demand…But I don’t know how to do that yet…Maybe Alyson can teach us?

    1. Sari, Thanks for your comments. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send me a private email with a sample work and price. I curious to find out if your clients are similar to the gallery’s clients.

  5. Pingback: On Becoming a CEO of My Artistic Ventures | Suzanne Gibbs

  6. Thanks, not much going in or out at this time but cool. I AM ready to start with Sari’s advice though! Thanks a ton for those ideas!! My guess though is that your prices can go up!!

  7. Ugh Anwar…It’s this teeny tiny line…Somewhere along the way, when you are not able to produce enough, you raise your prices, & all of a sudden you are filling your mum’s garage with leftovers…I’m not sure if when Baskin ‘N Robbins gets too crowded, that it is ok for the girls to start charging 40 dollars per ice cream cone because demand is too high…I was thinking more of starting a corporation (you know like taking over the world), & somehow making each thing more affordable, by maybe getting help from people I employ…Probably too big of a dream to chew off for the moment…Plus I don’t know how…

  8. I recently did a time tracking exercise as part of Artist Professional Development training from Creative Capital, N.Y. that was very revealing and really helped me focus how I spend my time. We had to write down everything we did for a week and how long we spent on stuff. Goal was to see how long we actually spent in the studio and on other stuff in an effort to learn to make more reasonable schedules, to see how much time things took vs what we thought they took, and to help avoid burn out. Also the advice was that 20% of your time should be spent on marketing, promoting, getting your work out there.Very helpful!

  9. Pingback: Choosing to Live Excuse-Free — Art Biz Blog

  10. I agree and disagree.
    “If a product, service, or situation is losing money, they will seek to stop the bleeding immediately.”
    For years, I’ve painted the same subject matter, same style (more or less). I support my family with the sale of my art work. Yes, it’s important for me to know what is selling well. I will continue to paint these paintings.
    BUT, I also paint a less popular subject matter. I have a passion for it and year after year I am selling more and more of this subject. So, while I can’t yet make a living selling these paintings, I won’t stop creating them. I suspect that eventually they will be my “Claim to Fame” .
    The difference with being a CEO of Coca Cola and CEO of your own art studio is the artist NEEDS to experiment. And you have to keep the passion alive.

  11. Pingback: Actions Speak Louder Than Words–or….If You Talk The Talk…Walk The Walk « Donna Branch

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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